Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living: A Delicately Daring Memoir

Co-editor-in-chief Anita Slater reviews Deborah Levy’s latest living memoir, discussing Levy’s approach to a myriad of topics including gender, marriage and the position of the writer.

image: Flip Festa Literária

‘You talk a lot don’t do? (2)

This is a response to Levy’s first female subject, in the initial chapter of her living memoir. The statement/question is produced by an older man, one the female subject names ‘Big Silver’ (4). Immediately (at least for me) visualising the infamous pirate Long John Silver, the reader becomes aware of a typical male archetype. The mischievous, epicentral, patriarchal figure who takes over a vocal and intellectual space with little room for the remaining women. It’s a dynamic many women reading Levy’s book will be all too aware of. Therefore, from the very first pages of her novel, the reader becomes steadily aware that the book isn’t simply a memoir. It’s a recognition, discussion and guidance on how to navigate the world as a woman, when you feel misplaced, out of bounds or unheard.

Levy’s first chapter situates her by the Caribbean coast, however her regular use of nautical imagery joins all the chapters together, encouraging the reader to drift through her stories effortlessly. Levy imagines the sea as both comfort and unsteadiness. A boat that she uses to represent her marriage can be more unsettling in its calmness than a tempest that may ‘bring us closer to how we want to be in the world’ (7). Levy frequently refers back to this symbolism, reminding the reader that despite the difficulties in her new unmarried life, there is something soothing and freeing about the chaos.

Levy’s tone is cautious, even journalistic.  She reports and observes whilst making minimal verdicts. She simultaneously produces clipped, tentative statements about her daughters, her feelings and her parents, yet she expands vividly on imagery, and more mundane features of everyday life. This initially leaves the reader eager for more, however in the absence of detail, the reader is left to imagine, ponder and reflect on their own understanding of these themes.

One seemingly mundane image that Levy dedicates significant time to is her writing shed. She rents a shed space from her friend Celia, whom she describes as her ‘guardian angel’ (43). Celia’s house quickly become a place of reflection, comfort and cosiness. Levy describes apple pie, hot baths and flowers. Her working environment is a place of imagination but also stress. She desperately tries to deal with the cost of living by writing in very cold conditions, under tight deadlines. She is asked about film options for her books, and this leads her to ponder in her shed about her own ‘muses’ (88) such as David Lynch. Levy deprecates her own cinematic vocabulary; however, she shows considerable grasp of adopting (perhaps subconsciously) Lynch’s visualisation of a disturbed suburbia. Levy’s shed, and Celia’s house are seemingly comforting, yet the shed is encroached with mud, insects and dust. The domestic bliss is interrupted by dirt and cold, symbolic of Levy’s peaceful domestic life disturbed by financial worry, displacement and stress.

Levy says little about her parents; however, I am genuinely moved by a story she shares about her mother’s last few weeks.  She describes being by her mother’s bed side and frantically searching for lime flavoured ice lollies (the only thing her mother likes or can eat at the time). In a frenzy she runs into her local newsagents to demand why they have run out of lime and only stock bubblegum, a ludicrous flavour in her opinion. The story is both humorous and heart-warming as she shares a laugh with her mother over the problem. The brothers who run the newsagents are moved by Levy’s eventual explanation and provide her with a traditional coffee cup. It would have been fulfilling to have seen the brothers expanded beyond a national ‘Turkish’ (10) context-where they are depicted only as givers of a ‘pom-pom’ (10) and a ‘white china cup’ (130)-and into a more individual identity. However, Levy significantly reminds the reader that the book does in fact need to relate to her own personal life, and the moving story about her mother does just this.

Levy sporadically mentions marriage throughout the book, her relationship to it and what difficulties it provides for women. She feels she was ‘married to society’ (31), indicating that marriage tied her to specific social and cultural bonds. These are bonds that become worn and tethered but nevertheless remain attached to you, even as you try to maintain a status as a ‘major’ (3) character in your life. Whilst leaving her marriage gives Levy more freedom to explore her own career, she is also thrown into a sort of identity purgatory. Her new freedom results in re-attachments with men in surprising and often even more problematic ways. She becomes the confidant, the listener and the observed. She borrows Simone de Beauvoir’s own analysis to express the complex relationship between maintaining intellectual purpose as a woman whilst a desire to feel romantically fulfilled.

Levy concludes with a musing about the depiction of women, stating that they are expected to be ‘crazed with suffering’ (186). This I find to be entirely true, and the reader can see how Levy doesn’t want to follow this model of the female. In doing so, she doesn’t eradicate a depiction of female suffering, but instead she sedates it. She contains the struggles of her life and that of other women in minimalist form. Perhaps this is her way of trying to take control of the female narrative, one that for so long has been managed by a patriarchal landscape. Something powerful is made very clear in Levy’s memoir: that despite life’s bumps and waves, she is now in charge of how her own story is written.

Anita is a final year Sociology student and co-editor-in-chief of the Warwick Globalist.

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